WAPITI, Wyo. (AP) – Crowds of tourists watched in delight as the legendary Old Faithful geyser fired towering bursts of steaming water while others got stuck in “buffalo jams” on scenic valley roads as they as visitors returned on Wednesday for the partial reopening of Yellowstone National Park after destructive flooding.
Park managers lifted the gates to three of Yellowstone’s five entrances for the first time since June 13, when 10,000 visitors were ordered out after rivers in northern Wyoming and southern Montana surged on their shores following a torrent of rain that accelerated snowmelt in the spring. The cost and extent of the damage is still being assessed, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said Wednesday.
Empty roads and parking lots quickly became busier mid-morning after an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 vehicles entered the park in the first few hours in long queues that stretched for several miles ( kilometers) to a gate.
Lonnie and Graham Macmillan from Vancouver, Canada, were among those taking part in a so-called “buffalo jam” where a group of burly animals crossed the road. The bison sighting capped off a successful morning during which they had already seen two moose and numerous deer.
They showed up at the park last week, only to be turned away as it was being evacuated. They diverted to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota for a few days, then to the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming before returning to Yellowstone as soon as the opportunity arose.
“The purpose of our trip was to come here,” said Lonnie Macmillan. “We weren’t going to go home until we got here.”
The record flooding has reshaped the park’s rivers and canyons, wiped out many roads and left some areas famous for their wildlife viewing inaccessible, perhaps for months to come. It struck just as a summer tourist season that draws millions of visitors intensified as the park celebrated its 150th anniversary a year after recording a record 4.9 million visits.
Some of the top attractions of America’s first national park were once again visible, including Old Faithful, which shoots steaming bursts of water almost like clockwork more than a dozen times a day.
But the bears, wolves and bison that roam the wild Lamar Valley and the thermal features around Mammoth Hot Springs will stay out of reach. The wildlife-rich northern half of the park will be closed until at least early July, and major roads into the park remain cut off near the Montana tourist towns of Gardiner, Red Lodge and Cooke City.
Muris Demirovic, 43, of Miami and his 70-year-old mother arrived at the east entrance around 5:30 a.m. and were second in a line of dozens of cars. He and his mother, originally from Bosnia, were traveling across the country visiting national parks and Yellowstone was high on their list.
However, when they arrived it was closed due to flooding. Demirovic and his mother visited Cody, Wyoming, went to a rodeo, hiked trails and visited a museum. They had planned to leave the Yellowstone area on Monday, but stayed when they learned the park would reopen.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip for me and my mom, so I had to make sure she saw that,” he said.
To reduce visitor numbers while repairs continue, park managers use a system that, with few exceptions, only allows cars with last even digits on their license plates to enter on even days, while vehicles with odd last numbers may arrive odd. days.
Park rangers had to turn away less than 1% of people lined up due to license plate issues, and they turned them away before they stood in long lines to enter the park, Sholly said.
If traffic along the park’s 400 miles (644 kilometers) of roads becomes unmanageable, Sholly said officials would impose a reservation system for entry.
Along the road leading to the south entrance to Yellowstone in Wyoming, a long line of cars snaked along a road with a sign that had been flashing for days “Yellowstone Closed” but now alerting drivers that the park was open with restricted access.
Gracie Brennan from Kentucky and two of her friends were traveling to Yellowstone as part of a tour of the national parks.
“Old Faithful was the main thing I wanted to see, so if we can make it happen, whichever direction we go, it doesn’t really matter,” Brennan said.
The reopening comes as Yellowstone officials are still assessing the extent of the damage. According to other disasters in national parks, reconstruction could take years and be expensive. It’s an ecologically sensitive landscape with a massive underground plumbing system that powers the park’s geysers, hot springs, and other thermal features. The construction season only extends from the spring thaw until the first snowfall, a narrow window that means some roads could only receive temporary repairs this year.
This has turned some communities in Montana into dead ends instead of gateways to Yellowstone, a blow to their tourism-dependent economies. They are also struggling to clean up damage to several hundred homes and businesses that have been submerged by the floods.
In Red Lodge, one of those gateway towns cut off from the park, most businesses are open even as the cleanup continues. The Montana Department of Transportation is beginning repairs to the road between Red Lodge and the scenic Beartooth Highway, and the National Park Service is working to restore access to some areas in the northern part of the park.
“We have to stay optimistic, but we also have to stay realistic that there’s a lot going on and a lot of moving parts to get there,” said Tim Weamer, who does marketing for the Chamber of Red Lodge business.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, who came under fire last week for not revealing he was out of the country until two days after the flooding, was not at the park for Wednesday’s reopening. Spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke said Gianforte needed to meet with cabinet members and be briefed on the flood response and recovery.
Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon was also not in the park, his spokesman Michael Pearlman said.
Tiffany Jahn of Kenosha, Wisconsin, who was with her husband and daughter in line at the southern entrance to Wyoming, said she was excited to see whatever was still open and especially hoped to spot some wildlife of the park.
“We were actually coming last week and we were getting messages… saying ‘Don’t come, don’t come,'” she said. “But we were already here, so we kind of changed our plans and made it work. ”
Hanson reported from Helena, Montana. Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana at South Entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming contributed to this report.
Matthew Brown and Amy Beth Hanson, Associated Press